Creating Great Places Road Trip

Creating Great Places: Roadtrips to study area successes and apply locally

A Series of reports from Harrison Daily Times Publisher – Ronnie Bell

Dubbed the “Creating Great Places Road Trip,” the event was put together by the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Stops along the way included Conway, Little Rock, North Little Rock and Russellville.

Today we begin a series, taking a look at each one of the cities visited and getting a sense of what they have done to revitalize their downtown area and how they have achieved success.

CONWAY ARKANSAS

The first stop along the way is Conway, the county seat of Faulkner County located just west of Little Rock with a population of more than 43,000.

Kim Williams, Executive Director of Conway Downtown Partnership explained that their project began in the late 1980s with a Main Street program that became the Downtown Partnership. The organization was formed by a group of concerned citizens who developed a master plan that included a street and drainage project. Plans included the renovation of ugly store fronts and the pursuit of businesses that would compliment the downtown concept.

A downtown improvement district was established which provided an additional property tax to help fund the project. The group then enlisted the help of a student group at Notre Dame to complete a study for the overall plan and make recommendations.

The catalyst that got things going occurred when they succeeded in wooing Mike’s Restaurant to open in the downtown area. Mike’s is now one of eight restaurants in the Conway downtown area with a private club status.

“When we would bring in business executives of large companies we were trying to convince to locate here, they could not believe we were a dry county. They could not believe there weren’t any places to get a mixed drink. One company just flat out said they would not locate in a dry county,” said Bill Hegeman, president of the Conway Development Corporation. “It was a big issue for our area and we knew we had to do something about it if we wanted to grow.”

Hegeman and others arranged a meeting with the local ministerial alliance and explained the situation and that they had to move forward with an attempt to locate restaurants that serve mixed drinks for the economic livelihood of the community. “While we were not all on the same side, we came to an understanding to remain friends in the process,” he pointed out.

“The mayor of Conway took a strong leadership position and came out in support of the move to attract restaurants with private clubs, he testified at every hearing and was re-elected afterward, the Chamber of Commerce also got involved,” assistant mayor Jack Bell told the visitors from Harrison when asked what happened to the mayor as a result of his stand. Williams added that DWI citations actually decreased after the private clubs opened.

All applications for private clubs now go through the mayor’s office for recommendation or denial.

Partners in the downtown project contribute $250 to $5,000 each with a three-year commitment plus there is big support from the city. The city has helped to provide plans and drawings when needed and in some cases manpower.

“As the downtown project picked up steam the city became more and more involved,” Bell said. “We did sidewalk repairs and created an overlay list.”

Beautification was another element in the plan for the downtown improvement plan.

“The city understands that beautification is a critical part of the appearance of downtown. Parks and trails have been added in the past 10 to 12 years. A percentage of the local hamburger tax goes toward beautification as well as impact fees. Maintenance is handled through parks and recreation,” Bell reported.

Williams noted that the city assists in planting and watering the many flowerbeds and hanging baskets located throughout the downtown area.

The city also passed tough building codes with landscaping and lighting requirements to improve appearances. New monument sign ordinances were included in the process.

Bell said, “another important factor was the application for status as a ‘Bike Friendly” community with bike lanes and proper signage.”

During the efforts to improve the downtown, Conway succeeded in luring Hewlett Packard to town. They built a 150,000 sq. ft. facility and employ 1,200 people.

“The Conway Development Corporation, which is self-funded, played a big role in that success story along with resources and funding provided by the city. HP would not have located in Conway had it not been for that partnership,” said Hegeman.

George Covington of the Conway Downtown Partnership may have summed it up best when he said. “Property owners, industry and community leaders working together are the key to improving our area.”

Tomorrow we visit Little Rock.

NORTH LITTLE ROCK

By 1989 downtown North Little Rock had a problem. The central business district was all but abandoned with only three stores left open. There was no activity in the downtown area and crime was on the rise.

Finally in 1992 there was a shooting close to city hall and for some city leaders that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, something had to be done and someone had to do it. It was then that a core group of citizens met with the intention to take back their neighborhood.

“Downtown would have just died if citizens and the city had not done something to change its course,” says North Little Rock Community Planning Director Robert Voyles.

In 1993 a Community Development Corporation was formalized and 38 homes were purchased from a local slumlord. “At that time they purchased the houses for $3 per square foot and now they sell for over $100 per square foot,” says CDC Director Brad Williams.

Then the CDC began to purchase other buildings in the downtown area with a group of committed citizens and commercial developers working together.

They took stock of what they had and identified what types of stores or businesses that were not available downtown. A plan was hatched to recruit specific types of stores and eateries the group wanted to see locate downtown.

Before long a Main Street Program was launched, and the downtown area was renamed Argenta, the original name of the community. That led to the formation and development of the Argenta Downtown Council.

Local banks joined in and offered low interest rate loans, one percent above prime, for redevelopment of downtown Argenta and this was a strong draw for businesses to locate downtown.

A Business Improvement District was formed and a special assessment was levied on all property in the district. Two-thirds of

the property owners in the identified district voluntarily agreed to participate, a five person board decides how to spend the money.

Other action included the implementation of a clean and green program. Flowerbeds and large pots of plants were located all over downtown to create visually appealing focal points that would draw pedestrians further down the street. People took notice that there was something happening.

Then an art district and farmers’ market were added to the mix with a once-a-month art walk

Jody Hardin, who was instrumental in getting the farmers’ market in Little Rock started, was recruited to get the Argenta farmers’ market off the ground. He is one of the founders of Arkansasfood.net and Certified Arkansas Farmers’ Market, a network of local food producers across the state. Members offer only Arkansas grown produce and must agree to inspection.

The weekly farmers’ market began to draw big crowds with folks even crossing the river from Little Rock to take advantage of the locally produced fruits and vegetables. At the most recent farmers’ market, chefs from local restaurants came to prepare various dishes with locally produced strawberries.

Hardin recently opened the Argenta Market, a storefront operation located across from the farmers’ market offering fresh produce, fresh meat and poultry and a large variety of healthy processed and prepared foods.

All the plans and efforts drew more and more business to downtown Argenta. Meanwhile the downtown council developed a monthly newsletter and sought corporate sponsors that included Verizon, local banks, the Chamber of Commerce, utility companies and the city. “They were all passionate about bringing their downtown back,” Executive Director Donna Hardcastle told the visitors from Harrison, “we were able to raise $250,000 to outsource a master plan.” Included were sidewalks and creation of a bike friendly environment. The downtown area is now the scene of bike rodeos and bike training is offered in conjunction with local schools.

Hardcastle said the real breakthroughs for Argenta were the partnerships with Neighbor Works (CDC), local banks and private partnership groups, “None can do it alone,” she said, “Don’t even try if you don’t have partnerships!”

Though North Little Rock stands in the shadow of its big sister across the river, it has accomplished something akin to a miracle with cooperation between private organizations, the city and private citizens.

LITTLE ROCK

For most people who have been to Little Rock in the past 10 years, it is difficult to imagine the city without the River Market. Yet, there was a time when that area of the city was filled with rundown buildings and considered by many to be a dangerous place.

It was just an eyesore with no redeeming qualities that created a drag on property values around it.

Now it is hard to envision the city without it. It is home to trendy shops, art galleries and lots of eateries that stretch for six blocks.

Additionally, there is a huge live performance pavilion and a farmer’s market.

How did it all come to pass? It all began when a few city leaders decided to persuade former President Bill Clinton to locate his library just the other side of the bridge to what is now known as the River Market.

Obviously, Clinton could have located his Presidential Library any number of places, and some people might have thought either Hope or Hot Springs might have been the more considered options. The leaders in Little Rock were determined early to persist in the arguments that Little Rock, due to its size and location, had the potential to be more accessible to visitors and tourists. They won out over other the considered locations.

The President’s acceptance put the heat on the city to get busy and demolish old warehouse buildings on land they had procured on the banks of the Arkansas River just east of the Interstate 30 Bridge.

The construction of the Clinton Library brought with it an opportunity, if not a dire need, to do something about the warehouse area on the opposite side of the bridge. To those leading the charge, it made no sense to bring visitors to the library right by the most unsightly part of the central business district. Yet, this is the route that visitors would have to take.

The monumental task of acquiring the Clinton Library and melding it with the River Market, “requires vision and courage,” said Skip Rutherford of Little Rock is William J. Clinton Professor and Dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School.

Attracting visitors from all over the country and the world was a concern considering Little Rock’s perceived past history with racial issues. “We had to get past the issue with Central High,” he said.

To accomplish this, the city went to work on embracing its history and how those lessons have helped it become the modern racially mixed center of education, commerce and government that it is today. Now Central High is a landmark they use to teach how the school played a vital role in changing the city’s attitudes.

Rutherford credited that progress with helping to forge ahead with the River Market, which has been used to recruit businesses, doctors and students to the area. He refers to the area of the River Market as the “ Six Block Miracle.” It is a miracle that came about through vision, hard work and a willingness to overcome past perceptions.

Former Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey took the visitors from Harrison on a tour of the city and explained how the River Market began to fall into place as momentum grew and property owners could see the potential. Then outside investors and developers began to take notice of the whole concept and vision that was moving forward.

Today, what was once a six-block stretch of old dilapidated warehouses and seedy buildings is a showplace that draws visitors from all over the world. It has also become a place where local residents dine at any one of 37 different eateries and enjoy the many entertainment venues.

The 10,000-seat amphitheater draws music lovers from all over the state for concerts by nationally known artists. The entire River Market District is a sea of people during the annual Riverfest, and in the summer months the city hosts Movies in The Park, free to everyone.

With this sort of success, you might think the city leaders in Little Rock are resting on their laurels. “Not so,” says Little Rock City Councilman Dr. Dean Kumpuris. “Interested leaders still meet once a week to identify problems and find solutions. Density and diversity are the key. You must have lots of different things for people to do.”

Rutherford says, “You have to keep asking, ‘What’s next?’ The Clinton Library was the catalyst for us, but it only takes you so far.”

To conclude the visit, Rutherford, Kumpuris and Dailey offered some advice and words of wisdom:

Dailey: “Concentrate on the heart of your community”

Rutherford: “Communities will die if they don’t involve, draw in young people.”

Kimpuris: “It’s a lot easier to say you can’t do something than to try.”

RUSSELLVILLE, ARKANSAS

Today we head west further down the Arkansas River to visit Russellville, the fourth and final stop on the recent “Creating Great Places Road Trip” taken by a contingent of citizens and business leaders from Harrison. The trip was arranged by the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Stops along the way included Conway, Little Rock, North Little Rock and Russellville.

Participants were hoping to find out how other towns and cities have revitalized their downtown areas. This is the fourth in a four-part series that examines each city’s challenges and successes.

Russellville, population 28,000, is known as the home of Arkansas Tech University, Arkansas Nuclear One — Arkansas’ only nuclear power plant, and of course it is famous for Feltner’s Whataburger.

Something else it should be known for is tenacious people who were bound and determined to revitalize their downtown and restore vitality — they are passionate about it!

Their efforts have brought about a renewal of the old train depot through $759,000 in funding both public and private; a Mini Grant Program that provided incentives for 36 façade and sign improvement projects; seven Model Business Grants provided matching dollar-for-dollar incentives for private investment in building rehabilitation projects and the Burris Memorial Plaza transformed an under utilized piece of property into a tribute to the six members of Russellville who lost their lives in the airline tragedy in Little Rock on June 1, 1999.

In addition, downtown Russellville hosts the Taste of the Valley when area chefs sport their wares, the Fall Festival & Chili Cook-Off, the Hot Summer Nights Concert Series and an Art Walk in June, September and December.

So why and how have they accomplished such success?

The answer lies with a group of people who wanted to see their downtown area preserved and improved. “Downtown is the history and the heart of a community,” Main Street Executive Director Betsy McGuire told the visitors from Harrison. “You must answer the question, how do you perceive yourselves and how do you market yourselves?”

McGuire says you must be prepared to embrace a four-pronged approach: design, organization, promotion and economic restructuring. That is, decide on an overall design concept, get organized, promote in every way you can, including banners and signs, and realize you will be changing the economic structure of downtown.

One of the first steps is to identify buildings that need attention or renovation. McGuire says it is key to develop a master plan, to be in control of the type of buildings and businesses you want, and to pass ordinances to support those plans.

Russellville Chamber President and CEO Jeff Pipkin says, “Quality of place has just about become the number one thing when you are recruiting for your community. In today’s global and digital economy, people can now work anywhere.” He said this lesson came home to roost when his son told him that upon graduation from college, he was first going to find a place where he really wanted to live, and then find a job.

Pipkin says it is essential that your community have access to higher education for development of new skills, it must realize full access to broadband capabilities and you must have a good plan or direction for your community. See where your competition is and what they are doing.

Betty Lagrone, executive director of Arkansas River Valley Arts Center, told the Harrison visitors that they are the only full service, free-standing Arts Center between Little Rock and Fort Smith. She said the arts are integral and important to the success of the downtown area. The Arts Center hosts 40 exhibits a year at the Center and off-site venues, sponsors the Art Walk and offers a steady roster of art-related classes.

McGuire summed up the Harrison visit, “How often we are willing to accept mediocrity in Arkansas — don’t do it!” For sure, the citizens of Russellville have been unwilling to settle for mediocrity and their efforts show it.

The group of CORE members from Harrison who attended the  “Creating Great Places Road Trip” were: Jeanette Fitton, Dave Fitton, Robert Mallard, Jack Moyer, Terry Cook, Mayor Pat Moles, Ann Moles, Patty Methvin, Susan Sangren, Jeff Crockett, Lana Trublood, Ronnie Bell and Gene Brantley. Jim Dailey, consultant with CORE and trip planner Mark Peterson of University of Arkansas Extension Service also attended. CORE is open to anyone who wants to help restore the Harrison central business district. For more information call Dave Fitton at 743-2954.

Creating Great Places Road Trip PPT